Stunned looks everywhere. As Neil Lennon left Tynecastle’s press room just after 10pm on Wednesday, journalists gaped at each other in astonishment, as if to double-check with colleagues that the Hibs manager’s post-match interview had really contained the landscape-altering words “I’ll reconsider my position now over the summer”.
Given the fiercely-contested nature of the Edinburgh derby, the slanging that had unfolded between the two clubs since the well-documented “natural order” furore first erupted in January, and the fact the 2-1 defeat to Hearts ended Hibs’ hopes of finishing second in the Premiership, there was always likely to be some kind of ear-pricking soundbite to come from Lennon, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve and generally speaks his mind in the wake of any setback for his team.
Nobody present was braced for the words that flowed from the exasperated Northern Irishman’s mouth, however. If the green-and-white army were already deflated by their team’s uncharacteristically poor performance in such a critical game, their mood wouldn’t have been helped as quotes from their popular manager’s post-match media gathering began to seep into the public domain via social media. Some simply refused to believe it, accusing journalists on Twitter of making the story up. Who could blame them? Hibs supporters had started the day with aspirations of finishing second, then kicking on and establishing themselves as one of the most pre-eminent clubs in the country under Lennon in the coming years. Contracted to Hibs until 2020 after signing a new deal last summer, the former Celtic and Bolton Wanderers manager has generally given off a vibe for most of his tenure that he is content and relishing the challenge of trying to establish them as one of the top teams in Scotland. Any sense that Lennon – one of the most high-profile managerial appointments in the club’s history – is at Hibs for the long haul has now been placed in serious doubt.
Of course, anyone who has been following the team closely over the past two seasons will know that the manager has been prone to the occasional heat-of-the-moment after-match outburst which he has later played down, such as the withering analysis of the performance away to Aberdeen in December, which he later retracted and apologised to his players for. There is always the possibility that Lennon was simply allowing his thoughts on Wednesday to be clouded by the deep disappointment and anger he was feeling in the wake of such a chastening evening in enemy territory. After a period of reflection, he may well opt to play down his comments when he faces the media once more on Friday lunchtime ahead of Sunday’s match against Rangers.
However, there seemed to be significantly more to it than mere agitation at losing a derby match and missing out on a top-three finish. As he vented his frustration about his team’s “embarrassing” display, Lennon – a serial winner throughout his time in Scotland both as a player and a manager – gave the impression of a man who senses he will be unable to elevate Hibs to the level he would wish.
On closer inspection, it is not hard to see why he may feel this way. The manager has spoken on more than one occasion recently about how he felt this may prove to be Hibs’ best chance of finishing second as he anticipated Rangers only getting stronger next season. In addition, Aberdeen show no sign of waning under Derek McInnes, while there is little doubt that Hearts will be an improved proposition next year.
The confirmation that Dylan McGeouch, Hibs’ main man this season, is on his way out of Easter Road means Hibs will have to find a new midfield tempo-dictator for next season, while the manager has made no secret of the fact John McGinn, the Scotland internationalist with just a year left on his contract, will be sold if a suitable offer arrives this summer. In addition, it remains to be seen if Scott Allan, Florian Kamberi and Jamie Maclaren – the three loanees who have been so crucial to Hibs’ strong finish to the season – can be secured on permanent contracts.
While this type of end-of-season uncertainty is the norm for most clubs in Scotland – where loan deals and short-term contracts are often the way – Lennon clearly wants to build a team for long-term success, like he was able to do while in charge of Celtic. The prospect of potentially having to adequately replace up to five of his best players would be a daunting one for any manager, especially one like Lennon, who is renowned as a winner and wants to be competing at the highest possible level. The manager was clearly speaking through frustration when he said “fourth is not good enough” because he has already stated that this team’s accomplishments this season had exceeded his expectations. However, the wider point about fourth not being good enough is relevant in the context of the fact that in his time in Scotland, Lennon has only ever known life in the top two, and predominantly as a winner. While scooping titles at Celtic, he wouldn’t have envisaged the prime years of his managerial career being spent plodding along in fourth or fifth place in Scotland. He took the Hibs job in summer 2016 because he sensed an opportunity, on the back of Scottish Cup success, to get them back into the top flight and start ruffling feathers at the very top end, possibly even with an outside hope that he could challenge for the title if Celtic were to take their eye off the ball.
By suggesting, at the end of a generally impressive season from Hibs, that “we are not moving in the right direction at the minute”, Lennon clearly has reservations about the club’s ability to adequately deal with a potential summer of transition and still be strong enough to keep pace with the teams above them. Since relegation four years ago, it must be noted that Hibs’ recruitment has improved significantly and their signings have generally been bolder and more successful than those signed in previous years. Grant Holt, Anthony Stokes, Efe Ambrose, Ofir Marciano, Steven Whittaker and Jamie Maclaren are among the most eye-catching to have arrived during Lennon’s time at the club. While Lennon’s eyes are open to the fact Celtic and Rangers will always be able to trump Hibs in the transfer market, he doesn’t want a situation to arise where Hearts and Aberdeen are seen as more desirable clubs for players of repute. With Hibs’ dirty laundry effectively now being aired in public, chairman Rod Petrie and chief executive Leeann Dempster, having worked so hard to galvanise the club in recent years, face a delicate situation over the coming weeks as they bid to maintain the sense of harmony with supporters that they have worked so hard to foster. They must either reassure Lennon that he can fulfil his ambitions at Easter Road, or decide that, in light of Wednesday’s unsettling post-match outpouring from the manager, perhaps a parting of the ways is best for both parties.
Ultimately, the decision may be taken out of their hands if Lennon doesn’t hear what he wants to hear at next week’s board meeting. A week that promised so much for Hibs has rapidly and unexpectedly taken on an uneasy feel.